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Waikato student traces DNA barcode of local snails

06 Jul, 2011

Source: University of Waikato

An international project to ‘barcode’ all animal life using DNA sequences has been given a small boost by one of Waikato University’s summer students.

Gemma Collins is currently starting her 3rd year of a BSc(Tech) degree. Right from the start, her work has been scientifically productive. Gemma and Nick Demetras at the university’s Pacific Biosystematics Research Lab extracted and sequenced DNA from apple snails, a common aquarium inhabitant discovered recently in the Waikato River by Dr Kevin Collier.

“He gave us a few different types he’d bought from a pet shop, and we compared them with the one from the river to see what species it was. The information I provided was included in the paper that he’s just published.”

The barcoding programme identifies animals by a single gene that occurs in different forms in all species and that, thanks to advances in molecular biology, can now be rapidly isolated and sequenced. The programme was officially launched in 2010, and the 25 countries currently signed up have catalogued more than 100,000 species.

From the snails, which can grow larger than a golf ball, Gemma moved on to tiny freshwater planktonic animals called rotifers and copepods, which entailed fresh challenges. Some of the species were so tiny that up to 18 individuals, isolated and identified by Dr Ian Duggan, were sometimes required to produce a useable DNA sample. “And then because there can be variation among the individuals within the species, you might not get a clear sequence even though you’ve got lots of DNA.”

With such tiny samples, contamination was also a problem. “It could be airborne things or your own DNA from touching the tubes, so we do all the preparations under a laminar flow hood, with a flow of air to stop anything from falling in.”

Gemma will be continuing with the barcoding project as part of her course work. “It does take a long time, and 3 months over summer wasn’t too long, but if I can keep doing this for the whole year, then we should be able to get some good results,” she says.

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